In continuing excellence among UC San Diego Design Lab researchers, Srishti Palani, a PhD student and Department of Cognitive Science at the Design Lab, was named a 2021 Google PhD Fellow for her work in Human Computer Interaction focused on improving web search and intelligent guidance during creative work. The fellowship is open to researchers in computer science and related fields. Palani was one of 60 students throughout the world to be selected for a Google Fellowship–an award that supports outstanding and promising PhD candidates of all backgrounds who seek to influence the future of technology by providing funding, mentorship, collaboration and internship opportunities.
Palani’s research takes an interdisciplinary approach involving cognitive, computer, and learning sciences to better web search and intelligent scaffolding of complex creative information work. “We use web search almost every day to search things, and it affects how we learn and work and create and collaborate. I’m really passionate about researching this area and building novel computational techniques that integrate web search into people’s larger work context. Google, of course, has the most state-of-the-art web search technology that has existed in my lifetime, so I’ve always wanted to collaborate with the researchers, software engineers, and data scientists there to understand how we can get a better web search when people want to search for more complex information needs.”
Palani describes her work as “developing techniques to leverage the content created in software applications like notes, emails, and slide decks to implicitly guide and coordinate a user’s knowledge discovery process.” In other words, Palani seeks to help individuals in the creative process by using their existing work, even across different software platforms, to distill better search and creative guidance given the user’s informational needs. This vision is made apparent through her previous projects like the CoNotate system which intelligently guides search based on the searchers’ notes and past searches, and studies to help improve the search experience for people with dyslexia.
With her mentor, Dr. Russell, being a renowned computer scientist known for his work around effective web-search strategies, Palani envisions the strides she could make in her research. “Our current paradigm is to boost human intelligence and creativity by collaborating and building context-aware search systems that seamlessly integrate web search into searchers’ knowledge work to reduce cognitive overload and promote scientific discovery and unexpected creative connections.”
Alongside her passion and drive for her field, Palani was motivated to apply as a result of her experiences as a Teaching Assistant in Computer Science, Cognitive Science and Design classes. “As a TA, every year, I see students struggle with their programming, design or research tasks because they lack the vocabulary to search effectively,” she explains. “My role as a TA is not to know the right answer to help solve their problem, but just guide them through searching for help online. It’s usually as simple as knowing the right terms to search for.”
Including her overarching goal of improving query suggestions, Palani also holds two other goals for her research: one that involves the HCI and Information Retrieval research communities as a whole, and the other involving women in STEM. Palani’s goals focus on using her studies to help guide other researchers to “make their systems and interfaces more contextually-sensitive and cognitively-intuitive.”
“I intend to make all my tools and study data open source and available to potential users and the research community,” she explains. “It is my hope that through this we can study the impact of these tools over long-time-periods with different communities, and that other researchers will use my software and study data to bootstrap the creation of new contextually-sensitive and cognitively-convivial computational techniques to interact with search.”
Outside of research and being a student, Palani works towards her goal of bridging the gender gap for women and other underrepresented communities in STEM. Palani has established conferences and speaker series for local schools and undergraduates as a board member of UC San Diego’s Graduate Women in Computing, organized events like HackHolyoke–a hackathon that, according to Palani, “brought together 200 plus hackers, 50 percent of whom were women, making us the first hackathon to achieve gender parity–and the Mount Holyoke College Girls in Tech Conference.
Although Palani is well versed in her field, she expresses her immense gratitude towards the people that helped her on her journey.
“The strong support system and role models in my academic career have encouraged and guided me to become who I am today,” she says. “I’m super grateful to my family, advisor, faculty and student mentors in the Design Lab for always encouraging and guiding me to challenge myself, try new things and try to be better. I could not have done it if my research advisor and mentor, Professor Steven Dow, had not believed in me and encouraged me to apply, along with the support of Design Lab professors, such as Jim Hollan and Scott Klemmer, and industry research mentors who not only taught me how to research, but also imparted their passion for research to me.”
Through the opportunity to be part of the Google Fellowship, Palani proves that standing by what you value and consistently working towards that end opens the doors of possibilities and her work with the Design Lab serves as a beacon to future agents of change in technology, design and interdisciplinary studies.